Pelé died this week at the age of 82, and while it probably wasn’t newsworthy that he enjoyed the incredible fame of his time, it was still humbling to read some of the reactions to the column I wrote about him. I mostly hear from people in the boroughs, Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, Westchester, and Rockland.
Sometimes we hear about New York’s satellite sister provinces of Florida and LA and Vegas. But with Pelé, the addresses were just as varied – .uk, .au, .fr; constantly—for the praise for him was universal.
What gets the imagination going.
The idea of building Mount Rushmores in pop culture isn’t new, and the topic has carried many from happy hour to last call over the years. Usually we have modest parameters – the Mount Rushmore of the Yankees. The NBA’s Mount Rushmore. The Mount Rushmore of guitarists. The Mount Rushmore of the Sit series.
Pelé asks for a bigger list.
Because he and Muhammad Ali were by far the most famous athletes on the planet in the 1960s and 1970s, and that was a time long before cable TV and satellite TV and 24/7 newscasts and social media and that kind of instant access. we have now. A soccer player scores a goal in Croatia, you can see it in Copiague two minutes later (if you didn’t already see it live).
It wasn’t like that for Pelé.
It wasn’t like that for Ali.
And yet it didn’t matter where you lived—North Dakota or Nepal, Kansas City or Kazakhstan, Boston or Beijing—you knew who Pelé was. You knew who Ali was. And no matter where either of them traveled, even long after retirement, they were harassed by admirers and fans.
So Pelé and Ali are the first two faces on the Mount Rushmore of Sports, Earth Division.
The other two?
This is where it gets tricky. Soccer and boxing are sports with global appeal that, for example, baseball does not. As iconic as Babe Ruth was—and still is—in the United States, it’s hard to imagine him having the same appeal elsewhere. The same standard applies to American football. Thanks to modern media, many people outside of the United States may know who Tom Brady is, but few have ever seen him do what he is famous for.
Golf is global. And while Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 Majors has apparently outlived Tiger Woods’ early speed, and while Nicklaus is known and loved in places far beyond his home borders, he never achieved Tiger’s global fame. There isn’t a country on the planet that doesn’t know Woods now – when he won a couple of majors in a year, it was even more of a rage.
So I’ll put Tiger’s face in there too.
Fourth? Hockey is a global sport, and Wayne Gretzky certainly had a career worth considering as the best to ever play it (and yes, I know Bobby Orr fans think otherwise). Tennis has as much global appeal as golf, and Roger Federer’s dominance and gentlemanly demeanor have made him iconic almost everywhere.
But I have Michael Jordan at number four. Basketball may have originally been a strictly American game, but a quick glance at the NBA roster in 2023 reminds us that it’s no longer ours alone, not by a long shot. And while it’s fair to question whether Jordan or LeBron James deserves the title of GOAT, the fact is that Jordan’s reputation trumps LeBron’s: Which one of them has a silhouette as one of the most recognizable logos in international marketing. all?
Pele. Under. Woods. Jordan.
Let’s find a few picks and get started, shall we?
If it’s not something like Giants 14, Colts 3 at halftime, something has gone terribly wrong at MetLife Stadium.
After 35 years on the job, Lorraine Hamilton, one of the unsung heroes of the Mets organization, retired last month. For the past four decades, he was the behind-the-scenes wizard who presided over all the on-field events at Shea Stadium and Citi Field. He is also a pleasure to talk to. Cheers to a great run.
One of the problems with binge-watching: If you binge-watch the third season of Amazon Prime’s “Jack Ryan” and the first season of Netflix’s “The Recruit” at the same time, like me, you can get your Russian conspiracies mixed up. hurry.
Note to the Jets O-line: Keep Mike White healthy and up and running on Sunday, both for your playoff hopes this year and to get a true estimate of what White may be coming.
Whack Back at Vac
Jeffrey Moritz: As a New Year’s resolution, Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman remember Gene Michael’s bravery regarding the wild young talent of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Bernie Williams. I hope specks of hope named Cabrera, Peraza, Volpe and Dominguez will be embraced and cherished, not feared. Hal and Cash should ask, “What would Stick do?”
Vac: It’s hard to argue with Stick’s Game Plan. It was one of the greatest champions of many franchises.
Alan Hirschberg: I think the Red Sox deserve Victor Wembanya.
Vac: I think it might make even my angriest Boston friends—and they are a lot of angriers—smile. At least for a while.
@kantwishtaye: The close play of the Vikings is no reason to believe you can win the playoffs. So did the Bears.
@MikeVacc: I doubt if you voted for the Vikings and gave them all the truth serum they’d want to see someone else in the first round two weeks from now.
Vito Vaccaro: I had hopes for the Knicks, but how can you lose that game to the Mavs? Like Reggie Miller all over again!
Vac: We’re not related, but I also couldn’t get the dusty old pictures of Reggie out of my mind that night.